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Do you know the difference between love and coercive control? This experiment proves most young people don't

For a new televised social experiment, journalist Ellie Flynn brings together a group of 20 young people aged 18-30 to see if they understand what constitutes coercive control and the results are not what you might expect. 

Did you know that coercive control has been illegal in England since 2015?

And before you answer that maybe ask yourself if you really know what coercive control means, and if you would be able to identify it you saw it happening to you, a family member or friend?

This is the crux of a small scale but telling social experiment carried out by journalist and presenter Ellie Flynn in the new BBC Three programme, Is This Coercive Control?

For her experiment, Flynn gathers a diverse group of 20 young people aged 18-30 to test if they understand what constitutes coercive control. Her method is simple, the young people are divided into groups (based on their gender) and they are shown a dramatisation which they take breaks from to discuss at intervals. 

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Journalist Ellie Flynn with one of the participants Natalie Ellie (Photo: BBC/John O'Kane)

The film they see is a specially-written drama of a new couple, Alex and Rachel, which ends with an accusation of coercive control. Coercive control describes a pattern of behaviour by an abuser to harm, punish or frighten their victim. Over the last 18 months, coercive control has hit the headlines following the re-trial of Sally Challen over the killing of her husband.

The first scene shows Alex and Rachel at dinner, he gives her a piece of jewellery to mark their three month anniversary. They seem happy. Later we see them on a night out, introducing Alex to her mates. Rachel gets drunk, Alex doesn’t seem too pleased about her talking to a male friend. When Rachel wants to get out of work to see friends Alex suggests she tells her employer she lie and say she is going to funeral. She gets caught in the lie, fired and when she is distraught Alex swoops in, asks her to move in with him and promised to care for her.

It’s interesting that at the end of that section of the film, the young men tend to focus on Rachel’s behaviour, her bad decision making, her drinking, the way she dresses, her lack of trustworthiness.

The group of young women are more attuned, spotting early sings of Alex’s controlling behaviour.They use the word “abusive” in relation to Alex’s behaviour and sense danger ahead for Rachel. 

Journalist Ellie Flynn and the 20 young participants in BBC Three coercive control experiment (Photo: BBC/John O'Kane)

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As the story unfolds we see Alex start to make negative comments about the way Rachel dresses, he gets annoyed in the flat isn’t cleaned the way he wants it, he outs her down, wants to know where she is all the time, interferes with her seeing her friends and gets aggressive –smashing a plate, raising his voice and gaslighting her. 

These incidents are usually followed by proclamations of love and apologies to Rachel. Eventually he says she needs to start paying her way more.

The footage is actually incredibly well acted and informative. Many people, when they hear or read they about coercive control think the same thing – how could anyone let that happen? Watching this scenario answers that question loud and clear, we see it right in front of our one eyes.

At the second pause to talk with the group of men it’s clear that some now see some manipulating on Alex’s part, and the power plays he’s making. But is it abuse? Is it criminal? 

At the end of the film the young people vote on whether they believe any of these actions constitute the crime of coercive control. Finally, the group hears from barrister Clare Ciborowska who helps analyse what the group have seen from a legal standpoint.

The end results are eye opening, the realisations are stunning and the reactions are fascinating.

The climactic court scenes are the most powerful and show why coercive control is so hard to prove in a court of law. While the results of the experiment and the mock court case are shocking, the message that coercive control is a complex crime that is often hard to identify is demonstrated beyond doubt. 

Is This Coercive Control? is available on BBC iPlayer now and airs on Monday on BBC One at 22.45. 

Refuge’s National Domestic Abuse Helpline is free to call and available 24/7 on 0808 2000 247. See their website here for more information.

Main Image Credit: BBC/John O’Kane

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